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Paperclip or instrument?

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

While at the police station reporting the theft of her friend’s American passport, my student, also American and living in Paris, asked for a trumpet for the forms she’d just filled.


What she meant to use, was the word ‘’trombone’’ (paperclip), the shape of which is similar to that of the musical instrument, hence the name.


The French policeman burst out laughing, so did my student, and she was still giggling while telling me the story.


I pointed out to her that she’d reached a milestone by reporting the theft in fluent French – as anyone handling bureaucracy abroad will testify! – and that using the word trumpet wasn’t a mistake after all.


Here’s why. Her brain was searching for the name of a musical instrument but couldn’t remember the word ‘’trombone’’. It didn’t randomly reach for the word ‘’carotte’’ or ‘’maison’’, but for another musical instrument. And not just any kind of instruments, like a piano (string) or a triangle (percussion), but a brass one, and used the only word it could recall in that category, i.e. a trumpet.


Because there’s logic to her choice of words, the policeman understood what she meant, despite her not using the right one, and gave her a paperclip, which means that communication worked!


My student is unlikely to ever forget the French word for a paperclip (and so are you, quite possibly!). Crucially, she learned to not take herself too seriously when speaking French and enjoyed a laugh with a native speaker. It wasn’t about judgement nor perfection, but about communication, and that is what language learning is all about.



Don't hesitate to send me your questions.

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